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On “the mob” and the NBA Betting Scandal

For those of us charged with researching the sociology and the history of the underworld, deconstructing myths is standard fare.  As students of my organized crime classes over the years will tell anyone willing to listen, I spend the first few weeks of each semester addressing the intellectual baggage most bring with them when it comes to organized crime.  My experience researching the NBA betting scandal, complete with its attendant media coverage and considerable amount of public reaction, is but the latest example of how tiny strands of facts so quickly grow into wholly unfounded (but fascinating and gripping!) legends about the underworld.  Before continuing with this assuredly annoying and dispiriting post, I should point out that my primary blog is subtitled (emphasis added) “The Social Construction of Organized Crime” precisely because this sort of thing is unfortunately all too necessary.  Perhaps just as importantly, the main reason I took on the NBA betting scandal project was to gain an understanding of the role – if any – organized crime plays in the upper echelon of the sports betting underworld.  Needless to say, this particular issue gets considerable attention in Gaming the Game, far beyond what little appears below and elsewhere on my blogs

Here, then, is a fairly concise summary of “the mob” and the NBA betting scandal, based almost exclusively on official records and law enforcement sources.  [In advance, please know that I offered a tidy primer of the traditional and expected relationship between organized crime associates and bookmakers here.] 

* On July 20, 2007, the New York Post broke the NBA betting scandal story with a piece written by Murray Weiss – “NBA in a ‘Fix'”.  Among other things, Weiss wrote “The FBI is investigating an NBA referee who allegedly was betting on basketball games – including ones he was officiating during the past two seasons – as part of an organized-crime probe in the Big Apple, The Post has learned…An FBI organized-crime squad in the bureau’s flagship New York office is handling the case…The FBI got wind of the scheme while conducting a separate mob investigation.”

Within a week’s time, Tim Donaghy had been identified as the NBA referee and pro gambler Jimmy Battista was pegged as the “alleged bookie”.

Because a specialized FBI unit focused on organized crime cases made the discovery, initial media reports predictably considered the mob angle.  Reporters, especially those who worked crime beats and who had quality law enforcement and “street” sources, soon discounted the supposed involvement of the mob in the scandal, however.  See, e.g., here, here, here, and here.

* On August 14, 2007, FBI Special Agent Paul Harris, the (lead) case agent who operated out of the Bureau’s “Gambino Squad”, wrote in his affidavit in support of application for arrest warrants: “In early 2007, the FBI received information that Battista was engaged in betting large amounts of money on NBA basketball games and was receiving assistance from an NBA referee in determining his bets.” 
* On August 15, 2007, Donaghy pleaded guilty in federal court and his co-conspirators, Battista and Martino, were arraigned.  As is standard fare, the feds issued a press release for this rather consequential series of events.  The press release, despite the fact that the case was being handled by experienced mob investigators and prosecutors, makes absolutely no mention of organized crime.

It is difficult to convey to persons who pay scant attention to organized crime and the federal government’s treatment of mob cases how odd the 8/15/07 release is if there was even a hint of mob involvement.  For examples of how the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York, respectively, announce actual organized crime prosecutions involving “mob associates”, see, e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  There are literally dozens of readily-available examples, and you can also search the site of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where Philadelphia mob cases are handled.  You’ll soon notice that, if anything, the government amplifies mob cases with the knowledge such hype garners media coverage.  Headlines for the real “O.C.” cases linked above are predictably – and distinctly – different than any releases or public pronouncements by federal authorities in the NBA betting scandal cases against co-conspirators Donaghy, Battista, and Martino.  For instance, those releases linked above respectively announce (emphasis added), “Three Gambino Organized Crime Family Associates Indicted…,” “Genovese Family Associate Sentenced…,” “Sixty-Two Defendants Indicted, Including Gambino Organized Crime Family Acting Boss, Acting Underboss, Consigliere, and Members and Associates…,” “Colombo Organized Crime Family Captain and Five Associates Indicted…,” “Colombo Organized Crime Family Acting Boss, Underboss, and Ten Other Members and Associates Indicted…,” “Acting Boss and Longtime Associate of Gambino Crime Family Charged…,” and “Additional Charges Files Against Acting Boss and Longtime Associate of Gambino Crime Family.”

* Generally speaking, the alleged involvement of organized crime remained dormant as a subject for months and months following the initial summer 2007 developments, particularly since the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York (USAO EDNY) never referenced the matter as an organized crime case, much less a mob conspiracy.

* The “mob” issue re-surfaced briefly after the Donaghy defense team asked the court, in May 2008, to remove the seal on the government’s “5K” filing in support of a reduced sentence for cooperating witness Donaghy.  The letter, which was released on June 2, 2008 following the government’s consent and Judge Amon’s related order, included a comment on Donaghy’s supposed state of mind upon entering the betting conspiracy: “Battista told Donaghy that ‘you don’t want anyone from New York visiting your wife and kids.’  Over the preceding years, Donaghy had come to believe that Battista had organized crime connections, and so he interpreted ‘New York’ to be the Mafia.”

This single, unsupported Donaghy allegation in the government’s 5K filing represents the lone reference to organized crime in the months and months of filings and public utterances by the feds concerning the NBA betting scandal cases.

* Though Donaghy’s assertion had little influence on federal authorities, his attorney nevertheless mentioned the unsupported mob claim no less than five times in a May 19, 2008 filing as Donaghy was positioning himself for sentencing.

* The federal government, however, never revisited the organized crime issue during the sentencing filings, appearances, or public utterances.  Thus, in the entire history of the scandal, each and every discussion of organized crime and the NBA betting scandal from that point (May 2008) forward stems from a single, unsupported Tim Donaghy claim.

Having commented above regarding the official government record in consideration of Donaghy’s claim, I thought I’d offer readers a sense of how it was soon exaggerated and amplified by Donaghy beginning with the December 2009 publication of Donaghy’s book.
From Personal Foul (emphasis added):
“My road to ruin was punctuated by a shameful relationship with underworld figures” (p. xiv); “I associated with sleazy bookies and reputed mob figures” (p. xiv); “I passed information to wiseguys who were making millions of dollars on my picks and lining the pockets of Mafia heavyweights” (p. xiv); “By 2006, Battista had become a high-level bookmaker with connections to the Gambino crime family” (p. 2); “[Battista] was not an actual member of the Gambino crime family, but Tommy did talk about how he was ‘connected’” (p. 3); “I had suddenly become the central figure in a Mafia-controlled gambling ring” (p. 11); “From respected NBA referee to mafioso.  What the hell happened to me?” (p. 11; and, yes, Donaghy really says that); “[Battista] had obligations, the serious kind that required constant attention and a firm hand.  If I was the golden goose for [Battista], he was the rainmaker for his bosses, and rainmakers have a certain sway in the organization” (p. 127); “Tommy was really nothing more than a mid– to low-level goombah” (p. 127); “Maybe [Battista] was getting pressure from his bosses to milk the cow with both hands and two feet.  Let’s face it, they used [Battista] like [Battista] used me and Tommy” (p. 128); “I suppose Tommy recognized the need to keep his boss in the loop.  After all, [Battista’s] friends don’t look kindly upon rats.  It Tommy pissed off the wrong people, he could find himself hanging on a meat hook in a refrigerated truck” (p. 137); “[Battista] had an image to protect, not to mention a few unhappy bosses who were watching him closely” (p. 185); and “Watching ESPN on evening, two former mobsters were interviewed about the scandal.  Mike Franzese was a former captain in the Colombo crime family, and Henry Hill was a reformed wiseguy, once portrayed by the actor Ray Liotta in the movie Goodfellas.  Both were commenting on the mob’s connection to the case and the ramifications of my cooperation with the FBI.  Franzese and Hill told ESPN that I would be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life” (p. 193). [The mention of “hanging on a meat hook in a refrigerated truck” is an apparent reference to a scene in the film Goodfellas, which is based on Nicholas Pileggi’s classic Wiseguy.]

During the media appearances in support of his book, Donaghy routinely hyped the supposed role of organized crime in the scandal.  For example, here is a montage of Donaghy describing “the mob” visiting him in December 2006 at the PHL Airport Marriott and the chilling effect it had on him:

Needless to say, as someone preoccupied with researching organized crime in general and in particular with the mob’s supposed role in the scandal, I asked federal officials with direct knowledge of the government’s investigation about this situation.  One official, especially, took pains to address the particular (and contentious) issue of Donaghy’s incessant claim that Battista was somehow a “mob associate”, to which there is literally a single unsupported reference (which, itself, is based exclusively on Donaghy’s allegation) in the hundreds (thousands?) of pages in the government’s court filings spanning many months: “At best it is accurate not based on what Battista is, but based on what Donaghy perceived.  You have to always remember that Tommy Martino is a talker.  He’s the kind of guy who, if he was hitting on girls, would say stupid shit and brag.  So, it’s not inconceivable for Martino to be in Tim Donaghy’s ear saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I take Baba up there [to New York City] and I see him meeting with these people and I think he’s connected!’”
This is why law enforcement officials mock Donaghy when so often he describes his supposed omnipresent fear of “the mob”.  As one person with direct knowledge of the investigation sarcastically notes regarding Donaghy’s claim that he was called in for a “mob sit-down” following a lost bet during the scandal: “In one interview I saw, Donaghy says he kicked out [San Antonio Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich from a game and that there was a ‘sit-down’ – the Gambino crime family didn’t like that very much [because it could have harmed that evening’s bet] and there was a ‘sit-down’.  Little does the public know that it’s Tommy Martino that calls him up.  That’s the ‘sit-down’!  The ‘sit-down with the Gambino crime family’ was his buddy Tommy Martino calling him up and saying, ‘Dude, that wasn’t good for our bet’!”

[Note: It is unclear precisely which media appearance is being referenced by the official above, but see here for a possible source.]

* On Donaghy’s repeated claims throughout his book tour that he was beaten in prison by “someone who claimed he was associated with the New York mob” because Donaghy “cooperated with the government”.

Donaghy writes (on pages 223-24) of the prison climate to which he was subjected: “As I walked around the institution, it became painfully evident that gambling was everywhere,” after which Donaghy, the self-described gambling addict, wrote to the warden pointing “to the widespread illegal gambling that was occurring in the institution and the temptation I was experiencing as a result.”  Soon, according to Donaghy, word spread that he had complained about the gambling that killed numerous hours for many inmates, and “the warden instituted a crackdown on gambling, sending guards to conduct unexpected raids on card games and to search the lockers of suspected ringleaders.  It was pure pandemonium and all eyes were once again on me.”  According to Donaghy (p. 225), it was soon thereafter that an inmate called out to him, “Rat, rat, rat,” and hit him with a paint roller in the knee. 

I have listened to dozens of Donaghy’s “interviews” dating to December 2009, and I have never heard a word of this context during his media appearances.  Instead, Donaghy has encouraged an alternative – and far more sensational (read: book-selling) and sympathy-inducing explanation, namely that the inmate said, “I’m from New York, and I have friends in the mob!”  Donaghy routinely elaborates on the mob angle by saying such persons would have an interest in harming him since many of these inmates wound up in prison as the result of government cooperators like Donaghy.  Here is a montage I compiled of Donaghy’s media appearances in which he discusses this:

When I contacted various people within the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the FBI while researching the scandal, Donaghy’s claim of a mob assault was routinely met with officials chuckling at the suggestion of organized crime’s role, and (unsurprisingly) not a single interview subject was aware of evidence supporting this alleged motivation for the prison incident.

Perhaps to put a final point on this I should quote FBI Supervisory Special Agent Phil Scala (ret.), whom Donaghy can’t mention enough as a supporter of all-things-Donaghy.  SSA Scala, who in his capacity as head of the Gambino Squad (the unit which housed the NBA betting scandal investigation) was privy to much of the probe despite not being familiar with numerous details of it.  When I interviewed former SSA Scala, he had this to say (not unlike several of his former colleagues) regarding Donaghy’s supposed prison assault in the much-hyped context of organized crime: “If organized crime wanted to hurt Donaghy, he wouldn’t be around today.”

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